Charmaine Wilkerson, BLACK CAKE

Charmaine Wilkerson, BLACK CAKE

Charmaine Wilkerson joins Zibby to discuss her debut novel, Black Cake, which was already a Read with Jenna book club pick and a New York Times Editors Choice. The two talk about the moment Charmaine knew the story she was going to write, which experiences and feelings from her own life are infused in her writing, and the roundabout way she ultimately became a novelist. Charmaine also shares her extensive and diverse reading list and what she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Charmaine. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Black Cake.

Charmaine Wilkerson: Thank you, Zibby. It’s great to be here.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m sure most people already know what your book is about, but if you wouldn’t mind describing it for the people who don’t, that would be great.

Charmaine: To give some context, it’s a multigenerational story. It goes back and forth between the past and the present. The kernel of the story revolves around Byron and Benny in the present day. Byron and Benny are a brother and sister who were once inseparable, but there’s been a huge rift in their family. They haven’t seen each other in years. Now they’re forced to come together because their mother has just died. She’s left them this really unusual inheritance, a small black cake, a traditional Caribbean fruit cake sitting in her freezer. She’s also left them this really lengthy recording on a USB pen drive, hours and hours of recording. This whole experience is going to upend their lives because they’re going to learn that nothing is quite the way they thought it was. They’re already having some issues with their own relationships and identity. Their mother basically saying, “Guess what? My life wasn’t quite the way you thought it was. Your life is not going to be quite the way you thought it would be,” is really going to change everything. That’s what sets it in motion.

Zibby: It’s almost not fair that she didn’t get to see the effects of the revelation, of her confession, what would happen. As a mom, I would want to be there to watch the shock when they read that letter and found out about their whole family and all this stuff. I feel like she’s missing out.

Charmaine: She wanted to be there, but there was a problem in the family. Her daughter basically disappeared on the family, hasn’t been in touch for years. She, meaning the mother, Eleanor Bennett, has been waiting for her daughter to somehow come back, waiting for her children to somehow repair their relationship. She basically decides she’s not going to see them again together before she dies, and so she sits down to make this recording.

Zibby: It was also sweet how little details like how she called them B and B, which she called them as kids — there’s always something to being called your nickname or sinking back into your relationship with your sibling from when you were kids. It was just a lovely little addition.

Charmaine: I love nicknames. I love nicknames, so I use that a lot in my writing.

Zibby: I know you’ve been asked this a lot. You’ve written about it a lot. There were all these articles, but if you could share the inspiration for the story, that would be great.

Charmaine: Sure. There are many points of inspiration. I can say that the black cake itself was something that came in later in the process. I was just writing a number of different scenes. I like to explore issues of identity and concepts of family. I’m fascinated by the way in which we have our sense of who we are. Then we have the ways in which our sense of identity may run up against the expectations and stereotypes of other people. I was writing this scene about these teenage girls living in the Caribbean in the 1960s. They were different from the other girls. They were strong swimmers. They were obsessed with the sea. They had all sorts of dreams. This dimension in their lives really gets them into trouble and also helps them to get out of trouble. This was really what I was writing when I realized that it was connected to a series of other things that I had written, short scenes with other people. I suddenly thought, wait a second, I’m sort of writing about the same family but in different time periods. That was what I was working on. I realized, hey, I think I have a novel here, when the black cake sort of walked into the story.

If there’s any specific point of inspiration, it’s the cake itself. I did not set out to write a story about a cake or about food or the diaspora of food. A few years before, a younger member of my family had written me, had texted me on my cell phone to ask me for my mother’s black cake recipe. She made an amazing cake, fruit soaked in rum, dark brown cane sugar. It was always a special thing, but I was still surprised that this person would even think to ask me for the recipe. That got me thinking, Zibby, about the ways in which we choose to hold certain things closer to our hearts than others, the ways in which family memories and stories, again, help to form our identity. That’s going back to that other idea. I would say it was kind of a circle of ideas that came together. The cake just was a bit of glue that focused my thoughts and helped me to start to tell this story about the power of the story, whether it is told or not told, to shape our identities.

Zibby: Have there been secrets uncovered in your own family over the years? Has this book inspired any to come to the fore?

Charmaine: Well, it’s still early. Let’s see what happens. Ask me next year. It is early. Some people have read the book. It is not an autobiographical tale. Without a doubt, the idea of having heard half-truths from one’s elders or having heard one story when you were little and then having heard another when you were older, I would say that is the closest that my own experience comes to reflecting some of what you see in this story. It was probably much simpler than what’s going on with Byron and Benny. I simply realized that when I was a small, I was too small to hear certain things. Once I was a woman and old enough for, maybe, my parents to kind of forget that I’d been their kid, they were able to speak a little more comfortably about the kinds of things that we experience once we grow up in relationships and so forth. That was the only idea that stuck with me, the fact that sometimes you don’t hear something because someone feels it should be concealed or it’s just not the right time. Very often, you don’t hear something because people don’t know. Maybe they don’t think to share it. In the story Black Cake, there are a lot of different reasons why both the parents and the children are not fully sharing the stories of their lives and their relationships and their difficulties. This creates a lot of misunderstanding. Of course, the big story is really Eleanor Bennett’s past and everything that she’s hidden for different reasons at different times in her life. I don’t know if you had this impression. Ultimately, she was waiting to set things right. She was thinking she would, at some point, be able to correct things, set things back on a better track. Time went by. She was living her life. She was troubled by what she had concealed but did not feel that she could reveal it.

Zibby: That’s the thing with secrets. Sometimes you’re in so deep. It’s hard to find your way out, find the right time.

Charmaine: Yes, yes. There are issues of privacy. In this case of this main character, that’s really it. She feels that she made some missteps. She doesn’t know how to correct them. She keeps trying. Then time goes by.

Zibby: I also really like how you depict life from the point of view of the child, too, and this loss. Right at the beginning, you have the girl whose mother — she’s waiting and waiting for her mother. The smell of her kissing her at night — what did you say? Jasmine and something. The perfume still lingered. She kept searching for that at night. Year after year would go by. It’s heartbreaking, really. It’s just a total heartbreak for this child. Then the ramifications of the loss for the dad having to pick up the slack and do everything himself and what you do when you are charged with raising somebody and not having your main support, these are themes that are so widespread with so much loss in families that shapeshift frequently, especially these days. Talk more about that.

Charmaine: As we were saying, the story goes back and forth between the present and the past. You have these siblings learning about their mother’s past. As she’s recorded this story, she begins to talk about other people. Through these other people, we get a picture of what life was like for certain people in the story in the 1960s in the Caribbean, a little later in the UK, and then back in the United States. What happens is, there is this little girl, Covey, in the past who — yes, her mother leaves early on. Her father has his own challenges. He has issues. He’s going to make a series of missteps that will precipitate disaster in this family. I know a lot of people who are not so happy with this guy. They say, oh, he’s awful. It’s interesting. When I look back and look at this character, I see someone who’s kind of muddling through and who’s actually done a lot of kind things for people. He’s muddling through, and he makes a mess of things. He believes that he has very little choice. You have this young girl who then begins to grow. Because she is exceptionally strong physically and loves the sea and has a friend who is the same and then meets this young man who’s also the same, she develops this incredible strength. She becomes one of the stronger people on the island. That imbues her with this sense of determination. That will shift her destiny. We go forward in time. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.

Zibby: No, don’t talk anymore. We’ll talk about something else. Charmaine, how did we get here? Where did you start in life? Where did you grow up? When did you know you loved to write? What did you do before this book? Take us back. Take us through the whole thing.

Charmaine: Oh, you don’t want to hear the whole life story that I have to offer about myself.

Zibby: Let’s do the abridged version.

Charmaine: Abridged version because the fiction is better. There are some similarities in detail that you’ll notice. I’m from New York. I moved to Jamaica in the West Indies as a little girl. There is no doubt that this story which I wrote, this fictional story, steals details from some of the things that I experienced even though I was talking about a different time period, being in the garden, being in the sea, the different smells and food, the importance of things like the black cake at certain celebrations like weddings. I returned to the US and lived on both coasts of the US and ended up in Italy, which is where I am now. Coming to you from Italy right now. I’ve moved around a lot in my life. I come from a family that is multicultural where probably no two or three people have had quite the same upbringing. I think that thinking about these issues of identity and shifting concepts of family and home, this kind of thinking has always stayed with me and has influenced a number of things that I’ve written. I’ve written just short stories, very short stories. Without a doubt, you see a lot of that in the novel, Black Cake. I always wanted to write. I loved stories, loved books, always thought I’d write, but it took me a while to get around to it. Does that sound familiar? I don’t have a house full of young kids as you do as a good excuse. I was doing other things and had the good fortune to work in news and communications writing and reading, other kinds of writing and reading, until finally I thought, no, no, no, I need to do this.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have another project already in the works? Did some other story call you already?

Charmaine: I’m working on something else, and then little stories. I’m always writing in short bursts. I have a series of Word files filled with things which could be alternately considered drivel or short stories in the making.

Zibby: I feel like that could apply to basically anybody writing anything. It could be literally nothing or it could be the best thing ever. Who knows what happens to it? It’s where the canvas takes us.

Charmaine: Absolutely, which is why they say don’t ever throw anything out. Keep it.

Zibby: Yes, very good advice. Very good advice. What do you love to read, by the way?

Charmaine: I read everything, but I do enjoy stories that have multiple points of view that tell a story through different characters’ eyes. To give you a short list of completely different stories, I’ve always loved The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, multigenerational, mothers and daughters, family secrets, misunderstandings. I love Beloved by Toni Morrison, which has a very strong voice in terms of use of language. It’s an unusual way to tell a story; again, multiple points of view. I love George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which was, in theory, about Abraham Lincoln losing his son but really was a series of stories from all of these different people who lived in his times and what they had gone through. I like those kinds of stories. I like Elizabeth Strout’s Olive stories, Olive Kitteridge; Olive, Again, where you’re in a room with one person — let’s say you’re in a room with you, Zibby. Then Olive walks in. Then I’m down at the gas station, and Olive walks in. We’re seeing the story of this woman but beginning with these other scenarios. These are the kinds of stories I love to read. More recently, I’ve read The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton, which I love. I loved reading A Little Hope by Ethan Joella, quiet storytelling with all of these lovely sensory details. A really interesting book that I’ve just read is Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades in which she’s telling the story of a number of different girls growing up in Queens, New York. Then they go on to become women, go on through their lives. She’s always speaking from the first-person plural point of view; we, we, we. Yet she manages to separate out their stories and then bring them back together. I love that. I love good stories, but also interesting language.

Zibby: Yes, those are all fabulous books. Now tell me the story of getting picked to be a Read with Jenna pick. What was that like? How did you find out?

Charmaine: I heard from my editor. It was very exciting. I heard just before it was announced, actually. I’m not sure we’re supposed to say that, but it was a surprise. Then of course, Jenna gets on the tube and just says it. It’s been amazing because she’s someone who reads — well, she claims she reads something like a hundred books a year, and a wide variety of books. I’ve really loved some of her choices. It was really quite an honor.

Zibby: That’s exciting. Really exciting. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Charmaine: I think of two writers who are very different whose advice I really like. One of them is Julia Cameron, who has just reissued her famous The Artist’s Way.

Zibby: I just interviewed her.

Charmaine: You did? Did I miss that one? I missed that.

Zibby: I don’t think we’ve released it yet. She has new book out. It’s exciting.

Charmaine: Yes, so I’ll let her speak for herself. Basically, one of the things that she encourages people to do — they don’t have to be writers, but it’s for writers — is to just sit down with a notebook like this first thing in the morning and write by freehand, or longhand, we say. Just go. Just write anything. It could be a shopping list. It could be something that’s worrying you. It could be an idea of an image that might end up in a story or in a piece of visual art. I was doing that for years not knowing what I was doing. I kept thinking I’m not very good at keeping a journal. I’m always going on, blah, blah, blah. Then in the next moment, I’m writing something that might be a story. When I read her book, I thought, you know, that’s okay if it gets you writing. Later, you can take your thoughts and focus them and work on a specific piece. Really, the advice is, just sit down and write. Don’t worry about it. Write first. Ask questions later. The other piece of advice is from the writer Anne Lamott, who wrote Bird by Bird.

Zibby: Who was also on my podcast.

Charmaine: You see? Of course, the book is very funny. I think the best thing the book did for me was it made me laugh. It made me laugh out loud at a time when I was being challenged because I still needed to give myself permission, as a mature adult with two careers behind her, to just write fiction. If you write for someone else, you already are given the purpose. You’re already given the legitimacy. If you write something from the heart and head, it’s a bit of a gamble. She talked about a number of different dimensions, but essentially, again, just putting it down. It made me think of my own life as a marathon runner in the past. Often, people would say, oh, my goodness, how did you run a marathon? Just three miles at a time, actually. You go out, and you run. Maybe you go to the gym. Maybe one day you’re too tired to run. Then the next time you’re running fifteen miles. It’s like everything in life. You have the idea. Go forward. That’s the long, long, long, book-length advice to writers. Just write it down. Keep going. Do think about where you’re going later, but don’t edit yourself. Don’t question yourself. Don’t doubt yourself. Don’t worry about writing a book. Just write.

Zibby: I love it. Thank you. This has been so great. Thank you for coming on. Thank you for your insights and all of it. It’s really exciting. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Charmaine: Thank you. It’s been great meeting you. Good luck with your own books. You have a couple of books coming out.

Zibby: I do. Thank you. Yes.

Charmaine: Take care, Zibby. It’s been great. Thank you.

Zibby: You too. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Charmaine: Buh-bye.

Charmaine Wilkerson, BLACK CAKE

BLACK CAKE by Charmaine Wilkerson

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